You never know who’s providing you sustenance until they take it all away.
A few weeks into Meta’s implementation of a blanket block of Canadian news on its platforms (which include Facebook, Instagram and Threads) and Google’s patchy blocking of most Canadian news on its Google News page, the frenzy in our newsroom at The Varsity, at the University of Toronto, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The blocks, which arose from the federal government’s passing of Bill C-18 in June, are affecting every news organization in the country including large publications like The Globe and Mail, to independent publishers like The Narwhal, to other student publications like ours. Instead of contemplating who’s at fault, why the restrictions are affecting who they are, or how the issue will resolve, the online team at The Varsity is looking inward to determine how to move forward.
News has always needed a path to go from the journalists who report it to the people who consume it. The only difference now, is that these intermediaries are run by a search engine that is accused of monopolizing the market.
David Nieborg, an associate professor of media studies at U of T, explains the complexities of this relationship, stating that the power of social media platforms lies in being the place where the interaction between news organizations and users occurs. “If they both walk away, platforms have zero power,” says Nieborg. “(With) every click you make, you make those platforms more powerful,” he adds. This hints at one of the possible solutions to this crisis: What if we just walk away?
At The Varsity we are starting to work on just that. But in order to be successful we need to first ensure that our other news intermediaries are as robust as our social media accounts came to be. Over a few weeks, our weekly newsletter, The Varsitea, has undergone substantial updates both in terms of structure and design that will hopefully catch the attention of our thousands of subscribers. As the school year goes on, we will focus on expanding our newsletter audience base and possibly create more unique newsletters for the different niches that interest our audiences.
The second point of our strategy is to invite audiences to become more intentional users of our website — kind of like it was before the social media boom. This summer we saw an uptick in direct visitors, accounting for roughly 50 per cent of our online views. These visitors, what we call direct referees, arrive at our website without having passed through other intermediaries,such as a social media post. They find our website by clicking on a link in our newsletter, directly typing our url into a browser, or scanning a QR code. This term, we plan to post many QR codes on posters around the U of T campus to grow our direct referee audience numbers. Cutting out the middleman effectively increases our power.
Like us, news organizations across Canada are looking for alternative ways to share their news while bypassing Meta and Google’s services, including opening accounts on other social media platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky. While I’ve had conversations about this with our team at The Varsity, such a move might not bode well with our reader base. A recent survey we distributed revealed that most of our readers reach our news from traditional social media outlets such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (now “X”). If we move to alternative platforms, there is no guarantee that a large portion of our audience will move with us.
Something we are actively seeking to do is to work collectively with other newspapers as we believe that, as student journalists and publishers, we are stronger together. Canadian University Press have been researching and preparing for Bill C-18 long before we’ve had to deal with it, and their advocacy pushing for student journalists to have a seat at the table dwarfs our own. Despite their advocacy work, CUP has not been met with the level of respect that it deserves. On May 10, CUP representatives appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications to inform the attendees about how Bill C-18 would affect student publications. According to CUP president Andrew Mrozowski, the only feedback they got from the committee was “good job.”
Mrozowski left with the impression that the senators were condescending, at best. Their response, he says, was “you guys did a good job; we understand; we hear where you’re coming from. A lot of us came from student journalism backgrounds.” In the end, CUP felt like nothing came out of that senate meeting, but both the organization and its university members continue to advocate for government transparency
“We know our users don’t come to us for news,” Meta proclaimed on June 1. While that is the conclusion they’ve reached through reams of user data, from my personal experience that is false. In my time as managing online editor, I’ve seen more student engagement with our Instagram than I’ve seen on any other platform. The debates, engagement and encouragement all unfold before my eyes each day as I watch my phone screen moments after clicking “post.” At its best, I believe that the media acts as a conduit to enlighten people about lives they’d never dreamed of, the good and bad. In an international setting, that may be learning about the ongoing turmoil in Israel and Gaza. At a university setting, that’s learning about the tenacity of a group of student climate protestors, a group that you might’ve never known about if it wasn’t for The Varsity. The collective consciousness of our student body rests on our ability to innovate ourselves out of this mess and find ways to help students connect again. Months after the Meta and Google bans, we’re still not as accessible as we’d like to be, but over time, we’ll figure it out, like we always do.
Mekhi Quarshie is The Varsity’s managing online editor.